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Whether you’re a pro athlete or a novice weightlifter, chances are you’ve heard about the benefits of a high protein diet for muscle building. It’s true that protein plays an important role in our ability to pack on muscle mass, but protein recommendations tend to vary significantly.
Some recommendations are as low as 50 grams of protein per day, while others go as high as several hundred grams per day. So how much protein do you really need to be eating on a daily basis to build muscle?
To answer this question, we’re going over everything you need to know about protein and the muscle-building process.
Table of Contents
What is Protein, and Why Does Your Body Need It to Build Muscle?
Protein is one of the three macronutrients that we consume in our diets. It is our bodies’ central tool for repairing and rebuilding muscle tissue. An ample daily supply of protein is needed to maintain and especially to build muscle.
What proteins are made of
Our muscles are made up of proteins, which in turn are made up of amino acids. Our bodies are constantly going through a state of muscle protein breakdown (MPB) and muscle protein synthesis (MPS). Activities such as exercising and even walking can place stress on our muscles, causing some of the tissue within them to break down.
In order to repair the damaged muscle tissue, our bodies require a variety of different amino acids. Some of the amino acids needed to rebuild muscle proteins cannot be produced by our bodies and therefore, must be obtained through our diet. These are known as essential amino acids.
When we consume protein, whether it’s a protein shake or a piece of chicken, our bodies break it down into amino acids. These amino acids are then used to build new proteins within our bodies. Some of these new proteins are ultimately used to repair damaged muscle tissue.
How proteins help to build muscle
Even if you don’t work out, your body still needs a steady supply of protein. It doesn’t take strenuous exercise to break down muscle tissue. The simple activities we perform in our daily lives also strain our muscles, creating the need for our bodies to regularly repair damaged tissue.
If we don’t consume enough protein on a daily basis, our bodies will not have enough amino acids to adequately repair damaged muscle fibers. This is especially important when it comes to building muscle – if our bodies don’t have enough protein, we won’t be able to build bigger and stronger muscles.
Exercise places strain on the muscles, causing serious damage to the fibers within them. As a result, increased amino acids are needed to repair and rebuild muscle tissue in individuals that train regularly.
This makes high-protein diets essential for everyone from the elite athlete to the casual gym-goer looking to lose fat and build muscle.
How Much Protein Do You Need To Build Muscle?
In general, 1 gram (g) of protein for every pound (lb) of body weight has been a daily dietary staple in the bodybuilding community for over 50 years. Athletes and those looking to lose fat have commonly claimed even greater success with higher protein intakes, oftentimes between 1.2 – 1.5g of protein for every lb of body weight per day.
What do scientists say?
An almost universally accepted recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8g per kg (0.36g per lb) for the average adult. The number is the same for both males and females. However, males on average weigh more and thus, require more grams of protein on average per day to maintain muscle mass.
So is the old bodybuilding staple of 1g of protein per 1 lb of bodyweight just a tall tale? Not so fast.
The RDA mainly pertains to people who don’t work out and aren’t looking to build muscle. Numerous studies have found that athletes and individuals who frequently exercise require higher doses of protein to build muscle.
For instance, a 2007 article published in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism (IJSNEM) concludes that somewhere around 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight was an ideal intake for resistance and endurance-trained athletes.
A 2018 study also published in the IJSNEM found that a daily protein intake of around 1.2g of protein per pound of body weight was the ideal range for athletes looking to improve their body composition.
How much protein to consume in your daily diet
The table below will give you an idea of around how much protein you’ll need per day to meet your training goals and level of activity. These numbers are just a rule of thumb; protein needs may vary slightly from person to person. If your primary goal is to build muscle, it’s a good idea to start around 1g per pound of bodyweight and then adjust your protein intake as necessary.
Benefits of a High-Protein Diet
To figure out your macro split, you need to know your daily calorie goals. The amount of calories you consume per day needs to align with your training goals.
Your overall calorie intake is obviously going to change based on whether you’re trying to gain or lose weight. However, a high-protein diet is beneficial for both building muscle and burning fat.
Building muscle and caloric surplus
If you’re looking to bulk and pack on muscle mass, you need to be eating in a caloric surplus. This means that each day, your calories “in” need to exceed your calories “out”.
A commonly recommended surplus is 500 calories, meaning you are consuming 500 more calories than you burn off in one day. For example, if you need 2,800 calories per day to maintain your current weight, you would tack on an extra 500 to end up with 3,300 calories per day.
This is where both a consistent diet and training routine becomes very important. If you are eating in a caloric surplus, you are going to be gaining weight. You want as much of this weight as possible to be lean muscle.
To maximize lean muscle gains, practice consistent heavy resistance training combined with a high-protein diet of around 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight.
Shedding fat and caloric deficit
A high-protein diet is just as important to anybody looking to lose fat and reveal toned shredded muscle mass. Conversely to bulking, cutting fat requires a caloric deficit. Calories “out” need to exceed calories “in” on a daily basis.
For cutting and losing fat, start with a 500 calorie deficit and then make slight adjustments if necessary. For example, if your daily caloric needs are 2,800 calories, you subtract 500 to get 2,300 calories per day.
Taking in enough protein in our daily diets becomes essential for maintaining muscle mass while losing fat. A protein intake of as much as 1.5g per pound of bodyweight helps promote more fat loss while limiting the loss of lean muscle mass during a cut.
When combined with resistance training, a high-protein diet will help to improve our overall body composition by helping us to target fat and reveal toned lean muscle.
How to figure out your Daily Caloric Needs
If you haven’t already figured out your daily caloric needs, no need to worry, it’s pretty simple. Here are the steps:
- Use a total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) calculator to find a rough estimate of your caloric needs based on your age, sex, height, and weight.
- Eat consistently for a week or two and track your weight.
- Make slight adjustments to your calories until you don’t experience fluctuations in your weight.
How much protein is “too much”?
We’ve seen that an ample supply of protein is needed both to build muscle and to burn fat. But is there such a thing as too much protein? The healthy range of protein recommended by the NIH is between 10 and 35%, so what happens if you go beyond that?
Increasing your protein intake without increasing your overall calorie intake won’t help you pack on more muscle mass. Instead, it can place your body under additional stress, especially in instances when carbs are dramatically reduced.
If you increase your protein intake by reducing carbs, much of the protein you consume may be used for energy rather than for rebuilding damaged muscle tissue. This inhibits your ability to build lean muscle mass. You don’t need to go crazy with your daily protein intake. Between 1g -1.5g of protein per pound of bodyweight is more than enough to build lean muscle.
Best Sources of Protein
Protein comes in many different forms. Some of the most commonly consumed protein sources for muscle building are:
Different forms of proteins digest at different rates and have different bioavailabilities. Not all protein sources have the same amount of essential amino acids. So which sources should you choose?
- Whey protein is an excellent protein source because it digests quickly, is rich in essential amino acids, and has a high bioavailability (over 90% is used by the body). This makes it an ideal supplement for anyone interested in building muscle.
- Beef is also a good source of protein for muscle building. Like whey, it also digests quickly and is packed full of essential amino acids. It has a slightly lower net protein utilization (NPU) however, with only around 73% of its protein content being utilized by the body.
- Eggs are an excellent source of protein. Eggs have a bioavailability of over 90%, meaning more than 90% of the protein in an egg is effectively utilized by the body. Unlike beef and whey, however, they have a much slower rate of digestion.
Plant-based proteins and building muscle
Proteins from plants can certainly help you meet your daily protein needs. However, there are some limitations. Many plant-based proteins have lower bioavailabilities in comparison to proteins from meat sources. For example, soy protein has an NPU of around 61%, meaning 39% of the protein is wasted during digestion.
Additionally, different plant-based protein sources may be low in different types of essential amino acids, meaning that you will need to consume a wider variety of plant-based proteins to assure that you are getting an ample supply of all 11 essential amino acids.
Protein supplementation: whey, casein, and plant proteins
When it comes to a high-protein diet, consuming large quantities of solid protein sources throughout the day can be a challenge. That’s why many people rely on protein powder supplements to get in a portion of their daily protein. But what type of protein powder is best?
The best protein for you depends on which results you are looking for.
- Whey protein has a greater bioavailability and absorption rate in comparison to casein which means a greater increase in muscle protein synthesis. But because whey is absorbed more quickly, its effects on MPS are also shorter.
- Casein is absorbed at a slower rate, it increases muscle protein synthesis for a longer duration of time.
- Plant protein supplements are typically going to have a lower bioavailability in comparison to whey and casein. They may be lacking in certain types of essential amino acids, making them less beneficial for building muscle.
That not to say that you can’t gain muscle on plant-based protein — you can. However, casein and whey are better utilized by the body in the muscle-building process.
How to Factor Protein Into Your Daily Calorie Intake
Protein is one of the three macronutrients that we consume in our daily diets – the other two being carbohydrates and fat. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), between 10% and 35% of our daily calories should come from protein.
The remaining 65% to 90% of our calories should be split up amongst carbs and fat. This is referred to as a macronutrient split, also known as a macro split.
In general, most muscle building diet plans are moderate to high carb and moderate to low fat. For example, A ratio or “split” of 30/20/50, means that 30% of your calories should come from protein, 20% from fat, and 50% from carbohydrates. It’s also important to note that fat is more calorically dense in comparison to protein and carbs.
There’s been a lot of debate over the years surrounding the ideal macro split. The general conclusion is that there is no magic split that will be ideal for everyone. You can, however, figure out your exact protein requirements and then experiment with your carbs and fat until you find what works best for you.
For example, let’s say you’re 185lb male eating 3,000 calories per day. If you’re going for 1g of protein per lb of bodyweight, that’s 185g of protein per day. Protein is 4 calories per gram so:
185g protein x 4 calories/gram = 740 calories.
740 calories divided by 3,000 calories/day = 0.25, or 25% of your calories coming from protein.
This allows 75% of your calories to be split between carbs and fat. A good macro split to start from might be 50/25/25 – meaning 50% of your calories coming from carbs, 25% from protein and 25% from fat.
From here you can start to experiment with your carbs and fats, if necessary. For instance, If you’re feeling a lack of energy, you can increase carbs and decrease fats. Conversely, if you’re having trouble getting in all of your calories, you can increase fats and decrease carbs.
How much protein should you consume per meal?
Researchers have found no significant differences in muscle and strength gains between individuals who partook in intermittent fasting versus people who ate a number of small meals throughout the day. So what does this mean?
Ultimately, your ability to build muscle will likely not change if your protein intake is concentrated into a few larger meals or spread out across a number of smaller meals.
If you’re consuming a variety of protein sources in your daily diet, you shouldn’t be worried about eating too much protein per meal. If your macro split and daily protein intake are on point, splitting your protein across the traditional 3 meals is sufficient for the average person to build muscle.
When to Consume Protein to Build Muscle
Does it matter when you consume protein?
Sure, it’s absolutely essential to take in the right amount of protein if you want to build muscle but does it really matter when you consume it?
Protein after a workout
Several studies have found that consuming protein in a short time frame following training may be better for muscle growth in comparison to a delayed dose of protein hours after a workout.
In a review of research on protein timing, Aragon and Schoenfeld found that a dose of somewhere around 30 grams of protein immediately following exercise helped to stimulate more muscle growth in comparison to delayed doses.
While numerous studies have suggested that consuming protein immediately after a workout can be advantageous for muscle growth, there has not been any consensus on an exact window of time. The general belief, however, is the sooner, the better.
There also is not a unanimous consensus amongst researchers that consuming protein directly after a workout is more beneficial for building muscle. Hoffman et al. for example, found in their 2009 study that protein timing had no effect on body mass composition. In other words, they argue that it doesn’t really matter all that much if you eat protein directly after a workout or not.
Protein before a workout
Other research, such as a 2017 position stand published by the International Society of Sports, has also argued that consuming protein right before a workout may also be advantageous for building muscle and reducing recovery time.
So what should you make of all this?
There is a considerable amount of research that seems to suggest consuming protein immediately after exercise can be beneficial for muscle growth. At the very least it couldn’t hurt. On the flip side, it’s not the end of the world if you don’t always get your protein intake directly before or after training. Your body is still more than capable of building muscle and burning fat without an immediate pre or post-exercise dose of protein.
The amount of protein you need to build muscle is dependent on your body weight. Most people are able to sufficiently build muscle with a protein intake of around 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight. Athletes and those looking to shed fat may find greater benefits with a daily protein intake of closer to 1.5 grams per pound of bodyweight.
Too much protein can have a negative impact on building muscle. You don’t need to overdo your protein intake. In fact, if more than 35% of your calories are coming from protein, it could actually hinder your ability to build muscle.
Meal timing doesn’t appear to play a huge role in your ability to build muscle. Whether you’re intermittent fasting or consuming 6-8 small meals throughout the day, you should be able to build muscle as long as you are taking in a variety of quality protein.
Supplementing protein directly after a work appears to be advantageous for building muscle. Somewhere between 20 and 40 grams seems to be the ideal range of protein post-workout for maximal muscle increase.